Thinking Out Loud – Repairing Uncharted 2

January 5th, 2018

In the last few years I’ve moved away from including game repair ideas in my critiques as any suggestions on my part ultimately reflect my own tastes. However, these alternative visions can still make for good food for thought, particular when the my own views are quite different from the game in question. Uncharted 2 is one such game. The following notes were written back in 2013.

All Gunplay and No Interplay

Realistic gunplay lacks interplay, so when the player can fire high-impact, fast-moving projectiles at their enemies, there’s not much room for back-and-forth interactions. The inherent limitations of bullets can potentially limit the dynamism of the gunplay. Uncharted 2 already includes a few dynamic interactions (such as shooting soldiers off ledges), but not many. The following ideas could make the shooting much more responsive:

These recommendations would not only make the game more dynamic, realistic, and engaging, but they’d also allow the player to explore the inventive side of Drake’s personality, creating their own mini-set pieces.

Bending Realism for the Sake of Difficulty

Uncharted 2‘s hard mode floods the battlefield with soldiers which can sustain multiple head shots and take incredible amounts of damage. By the end of the game, the number of these superhumans ramps up significantly. This lazy form of difficulty adjustment has a number of problems:

Scalable difficulty would allow the game to better address the needs of amateur and advance players while also fitting within the game’s existing context. Here is one potential application:

Nothing Climbing

Spot an obvious-looking grapple point and push a button to have Drake jump to it, that’s about all that’s involved Uncharted 2‘s climbing sequences. The problem isn’t the contextual nature of navigation or the mechanics, which are direct and generally intuitive. It’s just too easy.

The developers could increase the challenge by de-optimising Drake’s climbing mechanics. Zelda: Skyward Sword does this with the energy metre (which adds a timing and risk/reward element to climbing). This widget could be a good fit for Uncharted.

Alternatively, the developers could repurpose the climbing sequences so as to reduce the number of cutscenes and support the game’s primary function, shooting. Most climbing sections precede shootouts, so they’re well positioned to function as a scaffold. Climbing sequences could give the player a good view of the upcoming arena and inform them of enemy patrols, cover spots, and the locations of explosive barrels prior to arrival. This reorientation in climbing would positively impact the game in a number of ways:

In order to facilitate the use of climbing as scaffolding, the levels would need to be reworked to include more dimensionality or openings through which Drake could climb past undetected. More opportunities to shoot whilst climbing or even shoot to open up areas for climbing would go a long way in adding more dynamic interactions to these rather static sequences.

Functional Approach to Chapter Design

Critics generally believe the two train chapters to be the best sequence in the game. Unlike most other chapters where the gameplay lacks a coherent direction, Locomotion and Tunnel Vision benefit from a functional design. The developers based the two chapters around a clear set of interactions which they then apply to a variety of increasingly complex gameplay scenarios (Adventures in Games Analysis will contain a full critique of Locomotion). Here are two theoretical examples of how Uncharted 2‘s levels could be orientated around a particular set of interactions.

By incorporating some more dynamic elements into the shooting gameplay, the developers could also increase the sophistication of the gameplay challenges while still keeping the action grounded. For example, using grenades to flush enemies out of cover (AI) or exploiting the lack of mobility of enemies caught in knee-high water (environmental element).

Conclusion

Gunplay and interplay, scalable difficulty, easy climbing gameplay, and functionally organised gameplay are issues which extend beyond Uncharted 2 and into a variety of other games (Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Timesplitters 2). Likewise, I took many of my suggestions from games which I believe address these challenges well (Resident Evil 4, Evil Within, Perfect Dark, and Zelda: Skyward Sword). Of course, without implementing these ideas and testing them in practice, they are simply food for thought.

Uncharted 2 – I’m Not Here, This Isn’t Really Happening

January 3rd, 2018

Uncharted_2_Among_Thieves_JP_boxart

Player agency separates video games from passive media such as film and literature. Unlike these other art forms, players of video games must exert skill so as to overcome challenges. And so playing a video game requires effort and commitment, much like any other skill-based task. However, not everyone wants to sit down after a hard day of work and put their learning and mastery to the test. And so in the last decade or so, the games industry has seen an increase in titles in the AAA games space which attempt to appeal to a wider audience at the expense of player agency and gameplay. The Uncharted series stands out in this regard. In a series of livestream discussions surveying games criticism on the Uncharted series, critic and game developer Richard Terrell concluded that Uncharted 4 (the latest game in the series) is a “super casual game”, citing the simplified shooting sequences and increased proportion of low intensity climbing and walking sections. While I haven’t played Uncharted 4, I would argue that the series has always sought to appeal to a wider audience by creating a more passive game experience. The following examples from Uncharted 2 may seem slight on their own, but together they play a significant role in reducing the player’s agency and the potential interactivity.

Too Many Cutscenes

According to How Long to Beat, most players need 10.5 hours of game time to beat Uncharted 2, yet around 3 hours of this time consists of non-interactive cutscenes. To put this into perspective, for roughly every 3 minutes of play time, the player will spend 1 minute watching a video. While well written and engaging, these sequences mostly consist of characters in dialogue, exchanging information which perhaps could have been integrated elsewhere. After all, Uncharted 2‘s plot isn’t terribly complicated.

Overuse of Checkpoints

For every significant gunfight won, the player reaches a checkpoint. While this measure keeps the game moving forward, the constant checkpointing also shortens the sustained length of time during which the player must play well in order to overcome a challenge. As a result, the player has little to lose going in to most confrontations and thus the game gives licence to more thoughtless play. The fast turn around between failure and attempt also reduces the intervening time where players subconsciously internalise mistakes and formulate new strategies. With Drake’s recharging health and ability to sustain multiple gunshots as well as few hard locks forcing the player to engage with each challenge, the generous checkpointing only makes running past enemies an even more viable strategy.

Early Clue Prompts

If the player waits around in a given area for more than a minute, a clue prompt will appear on screen. Activating the prompt makes the camera frame the next point of progress. The hint usually doesn’t spoil any puzzles; however, I find that it chimes in way too quickly. Oftentimes throughout my playthrough, I’d be notified of a free hint before I even had a solid grasp of my surroundings—and once it pops up, I doubt few players could resist using it. In this way, the clue prompts sap some of the exploration out of the gameplay.

Best of Friends

The developers turned friendly fire off, which means that the player can’t accidentally shoot Drake’s companions. However, the AI generally tends to occupy the space to the sides of most confrontations and Uncharted’s third person view and open combat environments provide the player with plenty of visual and physical room to easily manoeuvre around the other characters (there are, for example, few firefights which take place in narrow corridors). So in this sense turning off friendly fire cuts out the effort needed to work around your team mates. Other third-person shooters such as Resident Evil 4 turn on friendly fire and thereby allow the AI character to add an extra wrinkle to the gameplay. In Uncharted 2 though, Drake’s companions don’t change the gameplay in any meaningful way.

Bubble Wrapped Realism

Despite the painstaking visual realism, Uncharted 2‘s environments are for the most part static window dressing. Animals, lights, glass, and vases, among other things, don’t react realistically when shot. Only in specific instances where the game designers need Drake to shoot something that isn’t Eastern-European or explosive will the item respond.

Not only do the player and game world lack interplay, but the game elements don’t react to each other either, as I found out when I got Drake to hold a gas canister over an open flame. For contrast, in the first level of Syphon Filter lights, windows, bottles, computers, padlocks, and police cars all react realistically to gunfire. Uncharted 2 can’t even match the interactive realism of a PSone game. Amazing.

Conclusion

Aside from these examples, Uncharted 2‘s low intensity climbing sections and the lack of dynamic interactions within the gunplay significantly reduce the interactive experience. However, these issues relate more to Uncharted 2‘s core gameplay, and so I’ve saved these topics for the next repair-focused article.

Uncharted – Follow-Up Notes

January 3rd, 2010

uncharted-girl

I feel like a ruthless thug after mercilessly bashing Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Banana Blitz is an awful game as justified in the post, but I really enjoyed Uncharted. For my ‘game discussion’ posts, I make an argument for the most standout, interesting or under-discussed part of the game in question. These posts only represent my view for the stance I’ve taken in that particular post. Frankly I could swing either way as these articles often don’t represent my entire opinion of a game (usually the dominate view though; it’s not a review, so to speak), which is why I often write multiple posts on a single game, analysing it from different angles. In which case my initial look at Uncharted was rather scrutinising because scrutiny was requisite of the angle I was taking.

On the other hand, sometimes I just wish to supplement the main argument with some general comments and observations which is what I’m going to do now. Here’s everything I couldn’t say elsewhere about Uncharted:

The treasure hunting aspect, whereby the player scans the environment for Resident Evil 4 style glimmers of light, ie. treasure, infuriated the pants off me and is likely what drove me to write my original critique. The unintended consequence of this mechanic is that it amplifies the environment’s role as completely passive.

On the other hand, Naughty Dog were rather adept at meaningfully presenting the player’s progress through the scenic landscape. Each unit of gameplay is all very well segmented by architecture and level design. Progress often leads Nate upwards, allowing the player to look over the rooms and hallways (ie. “units of gameplay”) that they’ve just completed.

“Jack of all trades, master of none”, what a perfect phrase to summarise the original Uncharted, props to the games review folk for this neat mantra.

Uncharted-laser-sight

As I mentioned on Twitter ages ago, the pirates speak English, Spanish and even Chinese. After the car chase sequence, Drake and Elena swim to shore to a muddy wreckage and a batch of pirates swarm in. At this point one of the pirates exclaims “I can see him” in Mandarin. I find this to be a bizarre inclusion as the pirates don’t resemble the Chinese and this is the only time in the game when Chinese is spoken; just a single, misplaced utterance. Makes one consider the whole ethnicity issue which is rampant throughout Uncharted. Seriously, a charming American protagonist murdering dirty, inarticulate ethnics. :/

Uncharted broke two of my expectations. Firstly, Uncharted was criticised for its short length which  implanted the idea in my head that it’d be a short romp. Therefore, I played the game consciously working towards the final goal with haste, before I realised that there’s nothing wrong with Uncharted‘s length and somewhat rushed myself. The second thing was the diversity of the landscape, which I remember also being criticised by reviewing folk. Again I disagree, the shift from forest to catacombs to water-logged caverns and ancient ruins says enough, but even the jungle setting moved from day to night, even going so far to show the jungle in a less picture-esque, subdued light.

I’m still not terribly sure what to make of the zombies. Their purpose is obvious enough; to change the pace of the shooting which was wearing a little thin by that stage—but seriously, zombies? Naughty Dog really scripted these sequences in a survival horror manner, so they weren’t just re-skinned (or is that de-skinned!) ethnics either. From a design standpoint they worked decently, however contrived it was, from a contextual standpoint it’s a little outside the box.

Mad props must go to Naughty Dog for addressing two crucial flaws of the industry of late with this series: soulless protagonists and in monotone environment. I doubt that Uncharted’s technical praise would be so high if the rest of the industry weren’t so insistent on killing rainbows. The same must be said for the soulful story. Nate is lovable for his imperfections—Naughty Dog gets this which puts them leagues above the rest of the industry.

Considering that I’m so pleased about this game, let’s conclude with a humouress video for amusement:

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